Wit and wisdom for wordsmiths

How to channel your reluctant muse

Day 25 of Blogathon 2013


Do writers need muses? How about composers? Artists?

People have been arguing about the need for inspiration for millennia. For all we know, cave men waited for inspiration before they drew those horses and bison on the cave walls at Lescaux .

The Latin root of inspiration is “breathing in,” so it’s easy to see how the word came to mean finding the energy to create.

The ancient Greeks personified inspiration with nine goddesses they called the Muses. Museums were originally places to honor the muses.

Today, “inspiration” and “muse” have become all-but synonymous and are applied to everything from cars to terrorism.

There’s a Honda named Inspire. A Carnival cruise ship. A computer program. A religious cable network. A fragrance. A racehorse. A 1931 film starring Greta Garbo.  A southern Gospel group. A whole category of fiction.

Scarily, there’s an online magazine called Inspire published by al-Qaeda.

In New Orleans, the muses are the inspiration for the all-female Mardi Gras krewe   that parades the Thursday before Mardi Gras. Along the traditional Uptown route, paraders cross streets named for each of the nine Muses.

But for writers, the muse has come to mean the mysterious guiding spirit we need to create. The problem is that the muse is fickle.

As Erica Jong put it, “ [the muse] won’t be summoned. She alights when it damn well pleases her. She falls in love with one artist, then deserts him for another. She’s a real bitch!”

But when the muse does alight and bring inspiration, Vladimir Nabokov described the feeling as “a prefatory glow,” and (I love this one) “the feeling of tickly well-being.”

(Well, he did write “Lolita.”)

But here’s the key question. When the muse is off visiting someone else, does that mean we can just go to the beach?

Every serious writer tells us the muse can’t be summoned. That the secret of writing well is to put our asses in our chairs and write. That the muse will visit while we’re working, not before.

I agree. But I think there’s more to it than that.

Yes, the muse visits when we sit down and write. But that’s not the only time. She visits whenever we do something that provokes ideas.

She visits when we read. When we go for walks and really notice what we’re seeing. She visits when we talk with other writers. When we cook, or daydream or practice yoga.

She visits when we try something we’ve never tried before to see if it works. When we take risks.

The trick is to recognize the muse when she visits, because she wears a lot of costumes.  And then to listen to her.

What about you? How does the muse visit you? How to you know?

Comment above.

2 Responses to How to channel your reluctant muse

  1. Jean Gogolin says:

    I haven’t seen the Elizabeth Gilbert TED talk, so many thanks for letting me know about it. Nor did I know the idea of a writer’s being entirely responsible for her success was a recent idea. Interesting.

    Funny. The muse visits me while I’m in the shower too. I think it’s the hot water pounding on my head.

  2. Evelyn says:


    The more I read and engage with the world, the more the muse visits. She also comes when I am in the shower or when I am brushing my teeth. I just keep a pen and paper handy.

    Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about the muse? I love her telling of the history of the muse and how it’s only in recent history that the notion of the writer being entirely responsible for his/her success has come into being. Worth a look if you haven’t: http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

    Evelyn recently posted..What Google, Netflix, and Zumba Have in Common

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